Discover Downtown

Stories of Hope: A Photo Gallery Depicting the Lives of Refugees in Harrisonburg

The Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program’s 2nd annual photography show is currently on exhibition at Clementine through the end of February. The gallery gives local refugees the opportunity to begin to share their stories with the Harrisonburg community. Clementine is the perfect place for our program to connect with local organizations, photographers, community members, and student populations.

We were very grateful for everyone who came to the  opening reception on Friday, February 3 and the opportunity to connect with old friends, meet new ones, and bring people together. The reception was a smashing success thanks to the great energy and support of the community.

The photography featured in the exhibit portrays four refugee families who have resettled in the Harrisonburg community with Arabic, Cuban, Eritrean, and Ukrainian backgrounds.  Each family was matched with a different local photographer who spent time learning their story and getting to know the family before taking any photos. They were able to hear the family’s native language, taste their native cuisine, and experience their native culture as they were invited into the refugee family’s home.

As the trust built up, the cameras came out and the photographers were able to artistically portray the daily life of each family. We were fortunate to have the amazing work of the local photographers who volunteered for this project: Seth Binsted, Rachel Freed, Aaron Johnston, and Lindsey Kolb.

The Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program in Harrisonburg works to resettle refugees from a variety of cultures, languages, and economic, educational, and religious backgrounds into the community. The Virginia Council of Churches works with Church World Service and Episcopal Migration Ministries to provide a new start for refugees. Our program greets new refugees stepping off the plane with a hot meal and a new home. With the determination to help every refugee become self-sufficient, our staff works to provide refugees with their basic needs, cultural orientation to America, English classes, school registration, networking, and employment.

We also seek to connect the resources of churches, organizations, and volunteers with refugees to help them as they learn customs and systems in America. Even though refugees are legal and invited to the United States, the risk for isolation is high. These highly trained professionals, hard workers, colorful cultures, and bright young minds have unique skills and talents vital to our community.

Some refugees have never used a freezer or refrigerator before and they may not have any idea how to write a check.  Some are highly educated as doctors and lawyers but may know only a little English and must work in a poultry plant in order to pay their rent.

Refugees have much to offer the Harrisonburg community, yet the barriers they face make this difficult. All have faced trauma and/or persecution and all experience culture shock when they first arrive. It is easy for refugees to get lost in their daily effort to survive with a new language, culture, laws, and systems. Everything is different as they struggle to get a driver’s license, read ingredients on a food label, put their children on the bus for school, and find a job.

Through the encouragement of community members and volunteers, the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program held its first Photo Gallery in April 2011.  We realized the importance of connecting to the community and giving people the chance to learn about these new members of Harrisonburg.

The second gallery is open through the end of February 2012, so come take a look at the amazing photography, learn about new people and places, and enjoy Clementine!

Jackie Cramer is the ELT/Sponsor Development Coordinator for the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program.

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